Don’t Blow Up Your Life For A Byline

May 19, 2020 § 11 Comments

A PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT By Estelle Erasmus

As a widely published writing coachNYU writing professor, and  assigning editor, my current and former students have been sending me pitches, op-eds and essays about why they are “breaking the rules of quarantine.” Sometimes they offer the justification that they have health, mental or emotional issues, and that’s why the rules shouldn’t apply…not to them.

In the midst of this crisis, it’s not the time for writers to grasp for splashy pieces founded on flaunting their ethical failures or illegal methods to sell their memoirs or build their platform. It will backfire.

As a writing teacher, a big part of what I do is save people from their worst instincts on what stories need to be told and how they need to tell it.

Students share their darkest moments with me and I help them craft their pain into stories that are published in top tier publications. I believe that care is a key reason I have been entrusted with training teens in journalism in NYU’s summer program. 

What I don’t do is encourage them to exploit their pain to get a quick clip. Let me break it down for you:

We tell our kids with social media that once it’s up, it’s out there forever. So let’s take a slice of our own advice. If you broke the law, faced down a cop, stole money, betrayed your marital vows, or played a prank on someone that ended with tragedy, why would you want to advertise that? It can’t possibly benefit you or your family. People will get mad, and may want revenge. Whether they send your essay to the cop you proudly thwarted, testify against you in a child support hearing, or take action to have you pay what you took back to society, think twice about writing about it.

Instead: If you’ve done something that shouldn’t be publicized and you are compelled to share it with the world, write it into a novel. You will get points for imagination, even if it is the truth.

Let’s also not confuse revealing, first-person pieces with clickbait. I have noticed that many writers make the mistake of producing humiliating stories that never take their careers anywhere.

The reason that happens is that those clickbait stories—even those written well—shared damning details of something that happened to the writer, but offered no further insight beneath the events. The writer didn’t dig deep.

I’m all for a revealing, first-person piece and have written many of those pieces myself. But those pieces need to do something important: the reader has to relate to the writer and to do that they have to understand the emotional underpinnings of why the writer did what they did, and then some transformation or learning has to take place.

Anecdotes need to have a broader focus. Vivian Gornick’s brilliant book The Situation and the Story references the external—the logistical situation; and the internal, which is the story. The story is the heart, the part that shows the emotional underpinnings which make up the narrative arc of an essay. Without it, the essay is simply a situation, or clickbait.

Bottom line: This is a fraught time and there are people suffering, so please think twice about sending essays into the world that open you up for many legal and emotional ramifications and attacks. There is no smart way to sacrifice your integrity to get that byline.  You may get notoriety—but not for your work. Just for being a jerk.

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Estelle Erasmus, an award-winning journalist and writing coach, has written for The New York TimesThe Washington Post, The Week, InsiderThe Independent, Parents Magazine and more. She is an adjunct writing professor at NYU and an ongoing guest editor for NarrativelyShe also teaches for Writer’s Digest, writes a column for Forbes and hosts/curates the podcast ASJA Direct: Inside Intel on Getting Published and Paid Well. Estelle can be found giving publishing advice on her website, on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

 

The Siren Lure of Travel Writing

February 25, 2020 § 18 Comments

“You travel all the time, why don’t you write about it?”

I get asked that a lot. Last year I spent time in the Netherlands, Italy, Vietnam (twice), China, Cambodia, Thailand, Costa Rica, France and Canada, plus Utah, Arkansas, Oregon, Michigan, Louisiana, New York (city and state), Florida and Pennsylvania; and I am a writer.

Why am I not a travel writer?

Sure, I share my experiences on the Brevity blog, and write travel mini-essays on Instagram, but I don’t write travel articles for mass media or contribute to guidebooks.

I’ve thought about it—in 2015-2016, I explored writing travel full-time, or even part-time, thinking it might help finance some of my trips. I paid a successful travel writer to coach me on pitching articles to newspapers and magazines. I made lists of places to pitch and what story and angle for each. I read airplane magazines and scoured travel websites. I attended the annual New York Times Travel Show on a media badge and collected business cards from every tourism board, tour agency, and PR team representing countries I’d like to visit. (The first day I woke up with total laryngitis and carried an index card reading HELLO I AM ALLISON FROM DUBAI PLEASE TELL ME MORE ABOUT YOUR COUNTRY/REGION/ORGANIZATION.)

After all that research, I didn’t sell any travel articles. I didn’t even pitch any travel articles. I’d arrive in a new location, realize I was there to work another job, and spend my day off resting, rather than hitting up Six Michigan Wineries You Must Visit or Exploring Tuscany In October. On vacation trips I dutifully photographed dinner plates and took notes at key sites, then got home and realized 1) I didn’t have time to individually pitch 20 publications to hopefully sell two articles, and 2) I needed $1500 in camera equipment, time and photography training.

Travel writing looks easy and glamorous, but competition is vigorous, and the prevalence of influencers sharing pretty pictures in exchange for free trips has further devalued the professional travel writer. It takes talent, skill and hard work to build an Insta-career, but social media further dilutes the market for magazine/newspaper travel readers.

Travel writers mostly fall in three categories:

  • Staff writers are on salary at single media outlets and their destinations are often assigned to them. They write big, splashy pieces, often over 2000 words. Staff photographers take the pictures, or the magazine purchases stock photos or is provided with photos from tourism boards, etc. Staff writers build their resumes with freelance clips and often work in entry-level positions before being assigned the travel beat.
  • Freelancers write for multiple outlets, and are paid per word. Thirty years ago, this was about $1/word. Now, many outlets pay 1-50 cents/word, or $50-200 per article, or even clicks-per-reader (usually a worse deal than upfront pay). Freelancers pitch story ideas and are commissioned to write specific articles. They often take their own photos.
  • Bloggers/influencers are not technically “travel writers.” They market themselves and their lifestyle as it takes place in exotic locations. They are physically attractive or can work their look, and take terrific photos or have an InstaHusband to snap them. Influencers spend as much time understanding algorithms and hashtags, editing photos and learning what their readers click on as they do actually traveling.

All three types go on press trips for new travel locations or experiences, or “fam” trips to familiarize with specific destinations. However, the biggest and most prestigious venues often require that writers pay for everything they get. In fact, the New York Times requires writers to have not received any travel freebies for several years, even if unrelated to the current story. Staff writers get reimbursed. Bloggers take freebies. Freelancers pay travel expenses upfront, then hope to sell enough stories to pay for the trip. At $150 each, that’s a lot of articles to get to Fiji and back. Sure, that travel is a tax deduction…but only if you show profit at the end of the year. The IRS doesn’t allow expenses for “hobbies.”*

Still want to write travel?

  • Read this Curiosity Magazine article, a comprehensive look at travel writing as a profession.
  • Learn to pitch. Read about it, or pay someone to teach you. Non-travel outlets like Narratively, most Op-Ed sections, and Gay Mag also commission essays from pitches. Pitching teaches you how to talk about everything else you write, too.
  • Pick and research one kind of travel. If you’re financially comfortable, go for the luxury spa beat and read a year’s worth of Condé Nast Traveler. If you’re a cheap traveler, read Lonely Planet. If you like quirky-but-sophisticated, read Afar.
  • Take better photos. Learn about angles, lighting, and framing. Get a real camera. Learn Lightroom or Photoshop.
  • Start with FOB. Front-Of-Book are short blurbs about hot new experiences and destinations, found in the first pages of magazines. FOB is easier to write and for newbies to break into.

Like romance novels, self-publishing, and writing an entire book, travel writing is much harder than it looks. But it’s absolutely possible to build a successful travel-writing career, and those skills will serve the rest of your writing, too. Writing travel means looking for the story every day, asking more questions, interacting with more people and trying new experiences—all of which make a better trip, whether or not your vacation becomes a story to sell.

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*Hobby vs business on Schedule C filings is more complicated than that, but that’s the gist. Lmk in comments if you really want to know more about deducting writing expenses and I’ll write another blog about that.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Travel with her to Tuscany in October, and finish your book along the way! Or follow her on Instagram for vicarious travel delights and writing adventures.

Get it on the Radio: Pitching

September 6, 2016 § 3 Comments

Star pitcher of the Brevity baseball team. Next week we play Tin House.

Star pitcher of the Brevity baseball team. Next week we play Tin House.

Right now, podcasts are a thing. Podcasts about accused murderers, about science, about old Hollywood. And many, many podcasts about personal stories. Ever listen to This American Life or The Moth and thought, I have a story that would be great for that show?

You probably do.

So what’s the process? How does the story get from your head (or the essay you already wrote) to the airwaves?

First, listen to the show(s) you want to be on. Different programs have very different styles and subject matter, and the story that’s perfect for Risk! is going to be terrible for Radio Ambulante. If a program is broadcast on the radio rather than solely on the internet, they have FCC restrictions on language and content. Some shows have a presentation component, where the first step is showing up at a live show and sharing your story in front of an audience (eek!).

Then think about your story, and whether it’s right for radio. As it happens, most of the points that make a good podcast story are the same things that make a good essay. On their pitch page, This American Life says:

…each of these stories is a story in the most traditional sense: there are characters in some situation, and a conflict. These pitchers are clear about who the characters are and what the conflict is. Also: each of these stories raises some bigger question or issue, some universal thing to think about. That’s also pretty important, and you stand a better chance at getting on the air if you let us know what that is too.

Radio stories are sold with a “pitch.” Instead of sending a whole story, you craft a pitch email–it’s a lot like a query letter–and submit your idea. At Transom, a site with hundreds of resources for radio storytellers and independent producers, Ari Daniel gets even more in-depth with seven tips for successful pitches, including:

Pitching a story about a generic idea — a group of people losing money on their subprime mortgages, say — isn’t nearly as effective as finding one or two people experiencing that issue who can illustrate the broader idea.

…If there’s any reason why the story needs to be aired soon, mention that. This is called a news peg.

…Don’t worry about chasing press releases and embargoed about-to-be published studies. It’s likely that staff journalists will cover these. I like to look for stories that aren’t yet on the news radar. In fact, most of my story ideas emerge out of casual conversations.

If you’re feeling like a total beginner (which is a great place to start) Youth Radio breaks it down for teens, and it sure helped me navigate at the beginning. That page has a great interview with Radiolab’s Robert Krulwich, too.

Snap Judgment even has a handy flowchart to see if you have a story (scroll down on the linked page).

Most of the shows that accept pitches have very specific and detailed guidelines. It may be challenging to structure your story to fit their mold, but it’s not hard to find the instructions. In learning to pitch, I found two things incredibly helpful:

  1. As an exercise, I listened to podcasts I wanted to be on and wrote pitches for the stories I heard on the air. This helped me identify characters, conflict, bigger issue, and see how stories were structured for particular shows.
  2. I downloaded archived sessions from the Third Coast International Audio Festival. Each year their conference includes Getting to Yes: The Art of the Pitch, and listening to people pitch their ideas to radio producers, and the producers picking them apart (kindly) helped me understand what does and doesn’t make a story. After you’ve listened to two or three sessions, you’ll start saying, “No! That’s not a story! But if you came at it from this angle…” before the pitcher even finishes their spiel.

Another great resource on story structure is This American Life’s Radio: An Illustrated Guide. It’s a $2 PDF download, and it’s so useful an approach to “what makes a story,” I think you should get it even if you never want to be on the radio.

On Thursday, I’ll be back here on the Brevity blog to talk about the process of actually presenting and/or taping. Meanwhile, check out some pitch guidelines, and see if one of these shows is the right match for your story.

Snap Judgment

This American Life (it’s a treasure trove including sample pitches that succeeded)

The Moth (with a link to tips for telling live stories)

Radio Ambulante

AIR’s pitching page, with links to many shows and how-to-pitch resources

Happy storytelling!

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor, and has appeared on The Moth GrandSLAM, Snap Judgment, and CBC’s Love Me and Definitely Not the Opera, among others. She’ll be hosting the upcoming Brevity podcast.

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